Based on Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development I would argue that adolescents understand each other much better that we understand them, or than they understand us (perhaps that is why there is so much friction between teens and adults). Thus, I try to use group work as a means for allowing my students to translate my adult-ese (academic chem speak) into something that they might be able to make meaning of. However, I quickly learned that creating groups could be like walking through a minefield. With so many differing personalities combined with the interweaving of personal lives and school cliques (most of which I am oblivious to) student groups can quickly deteriorate into a mess of angry teens.
“One should not assume a collaborative relational stance with a partner incapable or unwilling to participate at a similar level” (Nakkula & Toshalis, pg. 90).
One particular instance of that occurred in a group last year that consisted of three girls, Mary, Brittany and Julie. Both Julie and Brittany were strongly opinionated and at the time inflexible girls and poor Mary was doing her best to keep the piece. The argument was based upon a disagreement between Julie and Brittany which stemmed from a perceived inequality in work sharing. Neither of the girls was willing to negotiate with the other and ultimately preferred to do the project on their own.
“Enhancing students’ self-sufficiency and autonomy without also supporting their capacity to negotiate resources, power, and relational meaning with others can limit student growth” (Nakkula & Toshalis, pg. 95).
Mr. Harrison had a similar issue to deal with between Lorena and Steve. However, Mr. Harrison was able to deal with Lorena and Steve much more efficiently that I was able to deal with Julie and Brittany. His approach to solving the conflict is outlined by Nakkula and Toshalis on pages 91 and 92 of their book Understanding Youth Adolescent Development for Educators. Mr. Harrison had his students answer the following three questions:
- “What do you think are the key elements that make this project important?”
- “On which of those elements would you find it difficult to compromise?”
- “Which elements are negotiable to you?”
It has occurred to me that most teachers can identify at least a few reasons why group work is beneficial to learning (develop interpersonal skills, team working skills, etc.). I wonder if students could do the same. Further, I wonder (though not much) whether or not students have developed the skills or confidence to truly resolve conflicts as they come up within their group. In light of these and what I have learned from reading this book (Understanding Youth), it occurs to me that the three previously quoted questions might be a good place to start any major project - before conflict arises.